Depression in Men is a Public Health Crisis

In a recent op-ed, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Founder and CEO of The Representation Project and Writer, Producer, and Director of The Mask You Live In, and Dr. William Pollack, the author of “Real Boys” and an associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School discussed how depression in American boys and men is a public health crisis. Read the article on the San Francisco Chronicle or published below:

“There has been a great deal of public discussion lately around mental health as it relates to substance abuse and suicide prevention. There should be more discussion around another topic that’s been ignored for too long: depression in American boys and men.

Male depression gets inadequate attention, in part because our culture stigmatizes emotion in males, from toddlerhood on. Studies show that at birth, boys are just as sensitive as girls, but from their earliest days they are told, “Boys don’t cry.” Feelings such as sadness, humiliation and despair – natural human emotions – are marked as weaknesses.

So boys spend their developmental years suppressing emotions until almost all that’s left is anger. When boys are in the most pain, they have nowhere to go, because it remains socially unacceptable for boys to ask for help. So what do they do? They hide feelings behind a mask of stoicism, humor or aggressive behavior. And it only gets worse with time.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, at least 6 million American men suffer from depression every year. Yet depression in males is vastly under-diagnosed, with 65 percent of cases going undetected. The traditional signs of depression – withdrawal, a quiet demeanor, tears – are most often observed in girls.

Depression in boys tends to initially manifest itself differently: In the early stages of depression, boys are more likely to act out, be aggressive and engage in risky activities. So the early warning signs of depression in boys are often missed, leading to a misdiagnosis as a conduct disorder or attention-deficit disorder.

Before parents or teachers notice any signs of depression, young men often become impulsively suicidal. Shame – reinforced by society – about experiencing painful emotions heightens a young man’s tendency to act to end the unbearable pain. That’s why we see such high levels of completed suicide for young men: an average of three suicides a day in the United States – five times as many as women.

Depression in males of all ages is a public health crisis that must be addressed. To do so, we must redefine healthy masculinity and recognize that even if men are putting on a face suggesting “everything is fine,” real pain may be lurking beneath the surface.

Three steps essential to tackling this crisis are:

Encourage males – from boys to adult men – at every stage of development, to experience and express their entire range of human emotions instead of masking them.

Educate parents, teachers and counselors to better recognize the earliest signs of depression in boys and men; and,

Prioritize early intervention that provides male-friendly resources, support groups and treatment options for depressed boys and men.

Helping boys early on will lead to fewer men later in life who – after a lifetime of hiding behind their masks – feel the only option is to take their own life.

We have the tools to help men with depression. We know what to do. Why do we keep waiting?”